Pilots: Rafael Sierra

January 1, 2009

Finding a dedicated, career flight instructor is difficult these days. Meet Rafael Sierra.

Sierra was educated in Mexico and came to America as a young man in time to be drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam where, being ferried to battle by helicopter, he was drawn to aviation. After his tour of duty he used the GI Bill to learn to fly at Torrance, California.

With ratings in hand he worked taking pilot groups to Baja, California. Flying out of California’s Brown Field, he became familiar with border crossing formalities and many of the backcountry airports along the rugged peninsula. However, his real love was teaching, so began a long career as a flight instructor in Southern California. Sierra also had a passion for computers. With the advent of the first home computers, using the same patient style he demonstrates as an instructor, he became an early adopter of this new technology.

Today, with more than 6,000 hours of flight time, he operates out of Jacqueline Cochrane Regional Airport in the desert resorts oasis east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs. He teaches a solid curriculum of both steam gauge and glass-panel flying in technically advanced aircraft. As no hard-and-fast standards exist, he emphasizes the skills and training needed in mastering this technology. With several instrument configurations on the market, often with significant operating differences, training in one does not make a pilot proficient in another. He is a strong proponent of the new glass technology but also firmly believes that pilots, especially new pilots coming into the system, should have a strong understanding of the fundamentals of flight. So he starts with a solid grounding in basic VFR principles. With almost 350 days of desert sunshine, students rarely need to postpone their training because of weather. As the students progress and move up in skill and confidence they venture over the hill into the L.A basin. Here, pilots are challenged to fly in one of the nation’s most complex airspace systems, which demands patience, accuracy, and a pragmatic knowledge of overlapping airspace. And with more than 15 airports to choose from, students get to hone their visual and instrument skills in real conditions.

As a dedicated teaching professional and FAA FAASTeam Representative, Sierra continues to push his students for better performance and higher standards. His Palm Springs Pilots Association promotes flight safety through regular, complimentary seminars and it donates annual scholarships to young, aspiring pilots. His wife, Millie, is rarely out of touch. She is a 20-year veteran of the Palm Springs Tracon and now works Palm Springs tower.